Looking back at the slow and tortuous coalition negotiations that have been going on for the past 40 days (and which at the time of writing have not yet been concluded), it is difficult not to wonder whether the only way to form a government in Israel is to have the potential coalition partners come to the negotiating table with long and exaggerated lists of demands for goodies, jobs and basic policy guidelines (in whatever order), and for the potential prime minister’s negotiating team to try and turn all these demands into as coherent a government as possible, with as coherent a set of guidelines as possible, and at the least scandalous cost to the public purse.
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What would have happened, for example, if Netanyahu had started off by drawing up an outline of the government he would like to form, not only in terms of the identity of his coalition partners, but in terms of the identity of those holding the various portfolios, and of its basic guidelines that he himself desires, and then proceeded to the negotiations from there? Perhaps the final outcome would have been the same as, or similar to that of the process which has actually been taking place, but there is a slight chance that it would have been different.
Had such a process taken place, we would also have had a clue as to what Netanyahu really wants, beyond another term in office, and stopping the Iranian nuclear program at almost any cost.
At the moment we know very little. We know, from a post that Netanyahu wrote on the Likud website in January, that he wants to change the system of government.
Well, not exactly a change in the system, but rather the basis for selecting the next prime minister, from his (or her) being the head of the list with the best chances of forming a government, based on the recommendations of all the lists that managed to pass the qualifying threshold, to the head of the list that gained the most Knesset seats in the elections.
Under such a system, following the 2009 elections Tzipi Livni would have formed Israel’s 31st government – not Netanyahu. So it is not clear why Netanyahu wants this change, unless it was merely a conjunctural proposal, connected with Netanyahu’s assumption back in January that in the approaching elections the Likud had a chance of gaining the largest number of seats, but that a majority might prefer to see the Zionist Union form the new government. Either way, if that is the only change proposed, the actual process of forming a new government in Israel would remain as it is today.
In fact, the only type of system that would bring about a change in the government-forming process would be a presidential system, under which the directly elected head of the executive branch can form a government to his liking, though there is always a danger that the separately elected parliament (Congress in the US) will be oppositional in its make-up (as is the case in the US today). Does Netanyahu support the idea of a presidential system in Israel? And incidentally, what does he think of the statement made by Sheldon Adelson several months ago, to the effect that “the Bible doesn’t say anything about Israel being a democracy”? He hasn’t said.
But back to the government Netanyahu really wants, but cannot have. We know, from reports on the negotiations for forming the new government, that he plans to control the Communications Ministry, either by keeping the portfolio within the Prime Minister’s Office, or by appointing a loyal member from his party as minister, and this presumably in order to avoid any new attempts to close down Israel Hayom as a freebie, and to bring about changes in how the various TV companies and channels operate – especially those that he regards (not without reason) as hostile to himself, and his leadership.
It is less clear whether Netanyahu really favors bringing VAT on basic commodities down to zero as a means of reducing the cost of living, as he declared during the election campaign, and also as demanded by Shas in its coalition negotiations, since he is well aware of the opposition of the Finance Ministry (though not of Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon) and the Bank of Israel to such a move, on professional grounds.
In general, it is not clear whether Netanyahu has any sort of plan on how to deal with the cost of living problem, whether he really supports the ideas that Kahlon is determined to translate into policy once he becomes finance minister, or whether his main concern is not how to reduce the cost of living, but how to prevent a potential contestant for the premiership from shining, and gaining popularity. The only thing that we do know with regard to Netanyahu’s economic preferences is that the system should be more neo-liberal than social-democratic.
What about Israel’s foreign relations? Assuming that Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman would not have been Netanyahu’s choice for foreign minister if he were free to choose, and assuming that Liberman’s declared foreign policy goals are not shared by him, what exactly are Netanyahu’s foreign policy priorities? Is his only “plan” for improving relations with the US a Republican victory in the 2016 US presidential elections, or does he have some other plans? And what about relations with Europe? And what sort of education policy does Netanyahu really favor, again if he were to have a free hand in selecting Israel’s next education minister? Is Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett simply a default choice, since there is nothing else he can be offered (short of the Defense Ministry), or does Netanyahu really believe that Israel’s education system needs a greater national-religious input, especially in its secular section? And was Netanyahu secretly pleased (as some reported) when Kahlon announced that he would not support efforts to weaken the Supreme Court, and the proposed “Basic Law: Israel the State of the Jewish People,” which seeks to change the balance between Israel’s Jewish and democratic characteristics? Alternatively, deep down in his heart, does he support Yariv Levin’s and Ze’ev Elkin’s efforts in these spheres? The identity of the next justice minister might, or might not, offer an answer to this question.
And how exactly would Netanyahu set about integrating Israel’s Arab citizens into the mainstream, if he could do so unperturbed, or does he really view them – as his election day statement about Arab voting suggests – solely as bogeymen, and their realizing their democratic rights as a cause for alarm? And what about the haredim? Netanyahu has stated publicly that he does not view the haredi evasion of military service as a criminal offense, to be punished as such, and he apparently always understood that Yair Lapid’s aggressive and non-conciliatory method for trying to get the haredim to serve, and to join the labor market, didn’t stand a chance in hell. But does he have any ideas about what could work? The bottom line is that we know very little about Netanyahu’s positions on most issues, and we therefore have little on which to base speculations on what sort of government he would have liked to form, rather than the government that he, and we, will have to live with for the next four years (or less).
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.